The SWIFT Takeover: With "Follow The Money", NSA Knows All About Your Spending Habits

Tyler Durden's picture

With the NSA already tracking and recording every form of communication and electronic data exchange, it would hardly come as a surprise that the final piece of the puzzle was also actively being intercepted and collected by General Keith Alexander's superspy army: money, or rather tracking the global flow thereof.

Which is why we were not surprised to learn just this, following the latest report from Germany's Spiegel that "The National Security Agency (NSA) widely monitors international payments, banking and credit card transactions" and has even created an internal branch titled appropriately enough "Follow The Money" (FTM). Once collected, the data then flows into the NSA's own financial databank, called "Tracfin," which in 2011 contained 180 million records. Some 84 percent of the data is from credit card transactions.

Stated simply: every time you "charge it" and a credit card is swiped, literally or metaphorically, the NSA knows all about it and if it triggers a specific filter, congratulations: the NSA will be tracking your every transaction in perpetuity.

Further NSA documents from 2010 show that the NSA also targets the transactions of customers of large credit card companies like VISA for surveillance. NSA analysts at an internal conference that year described in detail how they had apparently successfully searched through the US company's complex transaction network for tapping possibilities.


Their aim was to gain access to transactions by VISA customers in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, according to one presentation. The goal was to "collect, parse and ingest transactional data for priority credit card associations, focusing on priority geographic regions." In response to a SPIEGEL inquiry, however, a VISA spokeswoman ruled out the possibility that data could be taken from company-run networks.

Odd: we fail to recall smartphone makers admitting the NSA has full back door access to their products, and only got confirmation following yet another report from Spiegel last weekend. Which is why we tend to take VISA's "ruling out" of any possibility with a grain of salt, and would rather be far more curious what if any backdoor funding channels exist between credit card processors and the espionage service to the US government. You know, to help soothe their consciences and what not.

But while collecting credit card data was to be expected, what is even worse is that the NSA has also secretly planted itself in the nexus of the entire global USD-intermediated financial transactions system courtesy of SWIFT.

The NSA's Tracfin data bank also contained data from the Brussels-based Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), a network used by thousands of banks to send transaction information securely. SWIFT was named as a "target," according to the documents, which also show that the NSA spied on the organization on several levels, involving, among others, the agency's "tailored access operations" division. One of the ways the agency accessed the data included reading "SWIFT printer traffic from numerous banks," the documents show.

What is curious is that while the NSA and its henchmen, in this case the GCHQ, had no qualms about violating personal privacy at every level, it is only when banks were threatened that someone feel like perhaps a line was crossed:

But even intelligence agency employees are somewhat concerned about spying on the world finance system, according to one document from the UK's intelligence agency GCHQ concerning the legal perspectives on "financial data" and the agency's own cooperations with the NSA in this area.

In other words, America's unsupervised uber spies, when not checking in on their former significant others, spend the bulk of their time tracking who is buying what, where, and with whose money.

They also know how much anyone in the world has spent on credit card-based purchases, what the source of that money is, and what the purchase was. In other words: absolute monetary and financial surveillance.

And since SWIFT is insolved, it likely also means a full blanket coverage of who buys what stock, and furthermore, leaves open to abuse the knowledge of which equities or FX pair the Fed, for example, is buying ahead of time in order to prevent yet another daily stock market plunge.

Which means that not only everyone would be fascinated in gaining access to the NSA's $29.95/month stock-picking newsletter, a bigger issue is that suddenly all money laundering on the global arena may grind to a halt. How this could impact capital flows in a world in which parking oligarch capital in assorted "free markets" is the only recourse for concerned billionaires who have no desire to be Cyprused, and where oligarch money laundering is one of the main drivers behind the US housing recovery for example, remains to be seen.